Education books

18th August 2000 at 01:00
In the United Kingdom, it was James Callaghan's 1976 Ruskin speech that signalled the start of the Great Debate. In the United States the fuse was lit a little later. A Nation at Risk, the report of Ronald Reagan's National Commission on Excellence in Education, was sombre, indeed apocalyptic. "The educational foundations of our society are being eroded by a rising tide of medio-crity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a People . . . If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose upon America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war."

That was 1983. The predicted economic disaster never occurred: the United States has never been richer. The bubble economies of the Pacific Rim have collapsed; the much-hyped Japanese education system is now less worthy of emulation. But the report's prescriptions - standards, accountability, testing, "tracking", "site-based management" and the play of market forces - have been simultaneously adopted and widely challenged. In the United Kingdom, where educational power is highly centralised, the Great Debate seems all but over; in the United States it rages strongly still.

The Feel-Good Curriculum by Maureen Stout (Perseus Books pound;20) typifies the US conservative perception. Her sub-title, "The Dumbing Down of America's Kids in the Name of Self-Esteem" conveys her message. She argues, rightly, that education is about "expecting great things from kids and helping them reach their goals". What she doesn't establish, however, is that it is "the self-esteem movement" that stops this happening. But she does articulate a powerful view, not un-known on this side of the Atlantic, that schooling is about content, not process, and that professors of education can't be trusted. "For conservatives, the purposes of education are essentially intellectual and moral; for liberals, they are social and political."

To Linda McNeil that is at least tendentious. In Contradictions of School Reform (Routledge pound;12.99) she argues that the rush to develop local, state and national school standards will produce worse teaching and more discrimination against "poor and minority kids". The case studies she cites of innovative magnet and pathfinder schools stifled by standardisation and testing have resonance here. So, indeed, does her chapter on the effects of performance-related pay in Texas. The overall effect of the changes, she claims, is to bureaucratise - and interestingly, to "de-democratise" - the nation's schools.

But standardised tests are deeply rooted in American culture, used as much in the workplace as they are in education. Standardised Minds by Peter Sacks (Perseus Books pound;17.95) is a serious journalist's investigation into how well they work. Sacks produces evidence to show that the tests tend to reward passive rather than active learning, are poor predictors of future attainment and correlate far too closely with socio-economic factors. By comparing "high accountability" states with national norms, he shows that even on their own terms the tests don't necessarily produce improvement. There is evidence, too, of "fixing". The more there is at stake, the more the pressure to deliver by any means the results that you have promised. Worst of all, he says, is the narrowing of teaching and learning, cut down to it the Procrustean bed of school, state and national test data.

So how should teaching and learning best be structured? What really works? For Jeanne S Chall in The Academic Achievement Challenge (Taylor amp; FrancisGuilford Press pound;19.95), it boils down to the old simplistic choice between student-centred teaching and teacher-centred teaching, and there isn't really any contest. Chall claims that while educational practice was moving towards progressive approaches, educational research was overwhelmingly in favour of traditional learning. Unsurprisingly, most of the research she cites supports this view. Some readers will doubt whether either practice or research was ever as clear-cut as this.

By contrast, the editors of Democratic Schools (Open University Press pound;10.99) fly a proudly progressive standard in their edition for British readers. The argument of Michael Apple, James Beane and colleagues is that even in the most challenging environments, and in the face of high-stakes testing and naming and shaming, parents and teachers have the experience and confidence to release creativity in children and to generate knowledge as well as self-esteem. Using the words of the people involved, the authors describe four inspirational "alternative" schools in the United States that took the system on and prospered. As always, you wonder whether it's the calibre of the innovators or what they do that makes the difference. What is clear, though, is that the difference is there.

But alternative schools are an implicit recognition that the common school, so long part of the American dream, is dead or dying, and this is reflected in the rise and rise of charter schools. Already, there are some 2,000 of them. According to Charter Schools in Action by Chester E Finn, Bruno V Manno and Gregg Van ourek (Princeton University PressJohn Wiley pound;17.50), there will soon be many more.

A charter school is privatised, yet public. It operates under a charter granted by the school board, but within the terms of its charter it is effectively autonomous, accountable only to its owners, its sponsors and (of course) its customers. Its function is to extend choice and deliver results. By definition, it assumes that existing public schools are failing. So will charter schools significantly change the performance and perception of public education? This important but partial study charts their often controversial growth, state by state, since their emergence in 1991. It highlights, too, the issue of accountability, rules out regulation, and comes down firmly for the operation of market forces. It also analyses the most common objections to charter schools and finds them generally over-stated. But it doesn't answer the all-important question: do they succeed? That is because education, as the authors concede, is necessarily a long-term process. None the less, "of the sparse outcomes we have today, most are positive". Nor does it detail the sort of education that such schools deliver, for the answer has to be, "what the market asks for". But suppose that the market is imperfect, as several of these titles argue?

To that, as indeed to the whole debate about accountability via testing, this intriguing book provides no answer. The authors, after all, have a gospel to preach. They have seen the future. They think it works.

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